The early March raid against al-Qaeda militants hiding in towns in northern Pakistan, which included the destruction of a madrassa, could raise questions about the continued use of these seminaries for terrorists in the region (Dawn, March 8). On March 7, Pakistani security forces in the town of Miran Shah destroyed the Darul Uloom Faredia Gulshan-I-Ilum, a madrassa owned and managed by radical cleric Maulvi Abdul Khaliq (Dawn, March 8). Pakistani media reports contend the madrassa was used by militants as a meeting place and hideout, raising alarms in the West about other madrassas in the region exploited by al-Qaeda and pro-Taliban groups to skirt authorities and the attention of U.S. military forces on the ground (The News, March 6).
As a visitor to a number of Pakistan’s madrassas, it is easy to understand how militants are able to bypass security detection by using an age-old educational institution. Seminaries in the northern areas, including those along the largely unmanned Afghan-Pakistan border, are ideal hideouts for extremists, providing cover, logistics support, and funding for operational activities. To date, few madrassas have been publicly linked to extremist Pakistani groups, partly due to the lack of access to these religious seminaries. Even Western intelligence agencies are not able to collect information from the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). According to a U.S. Special Forces officer in a private interview, the U.S. has not successfully been able to penetrate the tribal areas or gain entry to the religious schools.
In the March raid, the Pakistani government announced the death of about 140 militants, including five foreigners (Dawn, March 7). The attack was considered a success in the war on terrorism. The larger issue of reigning in extremist-run madrassas is a problem of greater magnitude. Most mullahs insist that there is no proof that madrassas are terrorist factories, even while evidence by Pakistani agencies and Western authorities has identified that some madrassas provide, at a minimum, a safe haven for jihadists. For instance, the Binori Town madrassa in Karachi has been accused of providing safe haven for terrorists; since the accusation, it has improved its image by implementing various security precautions.
Eliminating madrassas with a pro-jihad and anti-West curriculum is likely to only incite further violent action against the government of Pakistan and its Western allies. For example, in response to the latest clashes with the Pakistani army in Waziristan, an al-Qaeda media organization in the country—the Information Department of Labik—issued a statement on March 9 saying it will “raise the flag for jihad” until jihadists achieve martyrdom.
To curb the ongoing tit-for-tat violence, Professor Mufti Munib-ur-Rahman, the president of the Tanzeem-ul-Madaris Pakistan and the chairman of a national madrassa committee, said in a personal interview in December 2005, “The U.S. should provide constructive aid to madrassas rather than corrupt Muslim regimes, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait”—an irony considering that Gulf aid for years has provided financial incentives for madrassa programs across Pakistan. Today, however, many mullahs argue that they do not need external funding due to the profits these seminaries receive by the “public” in the name of charity after weekly Friday sermons from the country’s mosques.
In the interim, Pakistan’s policy in the war on terrorism will involve further skirmishes with al-Qaeda and affiliated groups unless the government finds alternatives to violence and constructive ways to oppose the extremist current in the north of the country.
Farhana Qazi is a Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an internationally recognized public speaker on conflicts in the Islamic world. She is the author of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley (Pharos, 2016). She is the recipient of the 21st Century Leader Award, presented by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) for her service to the U.S. government. This article was originally published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on March 14, 2006.